Let’s listen to Isaiah and share our bread with the hungry

By Edie Friedman, September 21, 2012

My grandparents escaped from Europe to America for a life free from persecution and poverty. Yet, after one generation, I went back, crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction for a year of study that became a lifetime.

I was privileged to have been part of the social activism of 1960s' America. But, by the decade's end, optimism had given way to despair that our efforts to create a more just world had not materialised. I left a country that was still recovering from the poison of McCarthyism, was rife with conflict over Vietnam and with a black population still denied access to the "American Dream".

I also left an America where Jews, religious and secular, played a disproportionate role in many of the social movements. The Britain I moved to was a country that had institutionalised outstanding social provision through the creation of the welfare state yet, paradoxically, I found that the Jewish community was not as overtly involved in issues of social justice.

Fast-forward 40 years and Britain looks to me like a very different place, with government-steered austerity cuts to state services. The Institute for Fiscal Studies expects the cuts will cause the number of children growing up in poverty to rise by a staggering 400,000 children by 2015. The UK's largest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust, has in the past three years doubled the number of people it feeds.

These cuts will have a disproportionate effect on our most vulnerable, who are less able to cushion themselves. Almost half of young black people are now unemployed, while half of older Pakistani and Bangladeshi people live in poverty. Asylum seekers and refugees will also be severely affected by the 60 per cent cuts to the advice services and groups that help them integrate.

Hackney’s Charedi community is worst hit

While I don't want to give in to pessimism, I find it frightening that the bulk of the cuts are still to come. The effects may be hidden from view (save for people begging on our streets), but this makes them no less devastating. And this pressure to compete for scarce resources could lead to increasing tension between communities as they vie for an ever diminishing share of the cake.

Our community is not immune. In 2011, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that, of the 50,600 Jewish children recorded in the 2001 census, 3,800 lived in overcrowded accommodation and 2,500 lived in social housing; 4,300 lived in households where no adults were employed.

Hackney's Charedi community is worst hit but the report also referred to areas like Barnet and Redbridge. According to Hackney Council, 90 per cent of housing claimants affected by cuts are Charedi. Meanwhile, Norwood recently revealed that its case-load had increased by 20 per cent since 2011 as a result of the economic situation.

"If all the afflictions in the world were assembled on one side of the scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all," teach the sages, in Exodus Rabba. The Reconstructionist rabbi, Richard Hirsh, explains that, in the Talmudic period, tackling poverty was seen as being too complex a job to be left to individuals or private groups - something surely true today.

As Jews, we are taught that every one of us has a duty to give tzedakah out of the necessity to do justice. "A person is held responsible for the sins of their family, or of their community when they fail to use their influence for the correction of wrongs."

Since I started the Jewish Council for Racial Equality in 1976, I have witnessed a growing interest in our community in making this teaching a reality. It did itself proud in creating a Jewish coalition to "Make Poverty History" in 2005. The same imagination, resources and effort now need to be channelled into a new campaign.

We have made a good start, with superb projects such as the New North London Synagogue centre for asylum seekers and Alyth Gardens' drop-in for refugees. Finchley Reform and Finchley Progressive synagogues have run homeless shelters. But more is needed, and such laudable examples must go hand-in-hand with a robust response from our community, be it through the pulpit or from our organisations.

A positive and distinct Jewish voice offering a vision of a better society must be heard loud and clear in the New Year. Isaiah commands us to "share your bread with the hungry". On Yom Kippur, this should be our resolution, our commitment and our passion.

Edie Friedman is executive director of Jcore

Last updated: 1:45pm, September 21 2012